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Catch-and-release rules could change soon at popular fishing lake in Lehigh County

Leaser Lake fishing

Anglers may be able to take home a few bass and panfish from Leaser Lake starting in 2022. Harvesting fish other than stocked trout has been prohibited since the lake in Lynn Township, Lehigh County, reopened to fishing in 2013. The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission is tweaking its muskellunge stocking plans to ensure the muskie fishery remains strong for years to come.Mark Demko | For lehighvalleylive.com

After years of being managed as a catch-and-release fishery for most species, anglers may have the opportunity to harvest bass, panfish and other species from Leaser Lake starting in 2022.

Since dam and spillway repairs were completed and fish restocking began in 2013, the 117-acre northwestern Lehigh County impoundment - one of only two major public fishing lakes in the Lehigh valley - has been managed under ‘miscellaneous special regulations’ to protect the fledgling fish populations. Anglers are allowed to keep hatchery-raised trout, which are stocked every year in the Lynn Township lake. However, all other species like largemouth bass, crappie, perch and muskellunge must be immediately returned to the water.

At its spring meeting, the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission’s Board of Commissioners gave preliminary approval to removing the miscellaneous regulations designation, with a final vote expected at the board’s October meeting. If that motion passes, the special regulations will be removed effective Jan. 1, 2022.

PFBC Fisheries Biologist Mike Porta says once the miscellaneous special regulations are lifted, Leaser may be proposed for the Big Bass and/or Panfish Enhancement programs. Additionally, the lake may be considered for the Stocked Trout Waters Open to Year-round Fishing program. Any changes that are made would go into effect for the 2022 year.

If any new regulations are enacted for warm- and cool-water fish, they would be put in place to create a balance between protecting fish populations and allowing anglers the option of keeping a few fish if they’d like. Panfish Enhancement regulations, for example, are intended to increase the number, quality and size of panfish by establishing minimum size limits on species such as sunfish, crappies and yellow perch. Under regular Commonwealth Inland Waters rules, there is no size limit for these fish and anglers can keep up to 50 per day. Similarly, Big Bass program regulations are often implemented to give bass a chance to grow and thrive.

Since restocking of Leaser began in 2013, the PFBC has released a variety of fish into the lake including bluegills, white and black crappie, yellow perch, largemouth bass, muskellunge, tiger muskellunge, channel catfish and bullheads. While fish populations originally struggled, the last few PFBC surveys at the lake – conducted in fall of 2020 and this spring – showed bass, panfish and other species are doing much better.

According to a report on the PFBC website, the catch rate for largemouth bass in the fall 2020 survey was 118 fish per hour, far exceeding catch rates from previous surveys at the lake, while the catch rate for bass larger than 12 inches was 8.8 fish per hour and bass larger than 15 inches was 4.8 fish per hour.

The agency noted that large numbers of small fish produced during the last several years were collected during the 2020 survey, which resulted in the increased total catch rate.

“The observation of several large year classes of largemouth bass is promising, particularly since limited reproduction was observed in previous surveys,” the report states. “If these several year classes recruit to adulthood, fishing opportunities should substantially improve in the coming years.”

Porta said 118 largemouth bass (LMB) were captured during the spring 2021 survey.

“The total number of LMB was less than that observed during the fall survey; however, this is not surprising as the young-of-the-year LMB from last spring influenced the fall catch rate - (there were) increased numbers due to collection of numerous small fish.

“Although the total number of LMB was lower, the number of bass exceeding 12 and 15 inches increased compared to the fall survey. We collected 22 LMB greater than 12 inches, and of those fish, 13 LMB exceeded 15 inches.”

As for panfish, the agency conducted a trap net survey targeting those species in spring 2021, and results suggest the abundance and size structure of those populations have improved to levels where they can now sustain limited harvest. According to Porta, black crappie up to 12.6 inches, white crappie up to 14.2 inches, yellow perch up to 11.2 inches and bullheads up to 15.7 inches in length were netted.

“Bluegills were the most abundant panfish species captured during the trap survey and most of these fish were 6-7 inches,” he says. “The other panfish species were less abundant, but some reached larger sizes.”

Porta reports the PFBC is not planning to maintain any other special regulations on the lake, which means species such as walleye, pickerel and muskellunge will be managed under regular inland waters regulations.

It’s worth noting that Leaser has developed a reputation as a stellar muskellunge fishery, with a number of large individuals – primarily tiger muskies – caught every year. Porta notes that inland waters regulations protect muskies up to 40 inches, and most muskie anglers practice voluntary catch-and-release. That being said, the agency is taking steps to ensure the lake’s population remains solid in the years to come.

“The survey results from last fall were promising, as numerous large tiger muskellunge were captured. However, few smaller fish were collected, which are important for the future of the adult population. Therefore, the muskellunge/tiger muskellunge stocking strategy was altered for 2021 where only tiger muskellunge will be stocked into Leaser Lake.

“In previous years, muskellunge and tiger muskellunge were stocked at a 1:1 ratio. The goal of the new stocking plan is to improve survival and recruitment to the adult tiger muskellunge population to maintain this very popular fishery.”

Mark Demko is a freelance columnist for lehighvalleylive.com.